I have now seen three different Japanese film directors (Ozu, Naruse, and … ?) who have had careers that have spanned at least forty years forward from the silent movie era, all primarily known for their black and white talkies, but for each of whom a substantial opus exists in the silent genre that very much informs both their future, more famous works and style but also my understanding of the styles and devices of Japanese silent cinema.
Japanese silent movies go into a further range than American silents (although if they have a Keystone Cops era I haven’t seen any proof), due to their creation so far into the 30s. Why, you might wonder, would the Japanese cling to an outmoded cinematic style for so long? It’s due, in fact, to the way they were presented: with narrators (called “Benshi”) to speak the dialogue. I’m not sure if this started because Japanese audiences were illiterate, or if it were some other reason – perhaps a story-telling tradition (maybe for theater?) that made using a narrator a natural thing. At any rate, it’s the use of Benshi that delayed the onset of talkies – not because they were so well loved that people wouldn’t give them up, but because they were unionized and fought hard against the loss of their jobs. There are probably several theses to be written on the subject – and I haven’t done any additional research – but, hearing about the Benshi, my question was: what was it like to see a silent movie with a narrator? I was told at some point they did more than speak the dialogue, that they also provided some kind of commentary; and as a silent movie and Japanese cinema fan, I burned to have the Benshi experience!
And, as if in answer to my hopes, an email arrived from the Silent London association, telling me that the BFI was going to be holding a special, members-only screening of one of the Ozu “gangster” films … with Benshi! I immediately started ticket-acquisition contortions (I wasn’t a member and it was sold out, so there was work to be done), and a few days beforehand some tickets became available and a member agreed to go with me … and we were on!
I can’t say entirely if the experience was authentic (did Benshi also have musical accompaniment? – we did, in fact, we had two musicians!), but it was extremely enjoyable. Our Benshi was a young Japanese woman dressed in a charming white gangster-style outfit, complete with white fedora. She was utterly charming and bouncy and made the whole experience mcuh more fun than it had ever been reading the intertitles alone. She told us about people’s relationships, she noted changes in time, she added laughter and sniffs, she ad-libbed (quite likely she was able to read lips to get extra words, as I noticed her additional dialogue seemed perfectly paced to what was being done on the screen – she must have practiced it many times!), she talked about emotions, and she read the lines with feeling.
The primary feeling I picked up was one of comic irony, something I never would have added myself, but looking at people’s faces when she was speaking their lines, it seemed entirely appropriate. Walk Cheerfully is Ozu’s version of an imaginary Japanese gangster-land, complete with the clothes, cars, and guns that actual organized criminals of the era in no way employed (or so the film’s notes declared). The whole thing, in fact, came off as a love letter to the Hollywood gangster genre, complete with American movie posters on the walls (I loved the one of Joan Crawford as a female boxer) and American song lyrics sung by the protagonists. The movie had a very Japanese sensibility underneath it, though – violence is clearly rejected (and not glamorized) by decent folks, the heroine herself is as traditional a good girl as you get (working hard to take care of her mother and sister, and turning down the boss’ offer of jewelry for “favors”), the sex is very much missing, and the hero actually takes a job as a window washer to get the girl. And he serves a ridiculously short jail sentence, which is seen as genuinely atoning for his past misdeeds! Perhaps there was an American gangster movie that ended so sappily at one point in time, but I’ve never seen it. And the Benshi seemed caught up in how unreal all of it was, and that it was okay for us to laugh at it, because even the characters on the screen were finding everything they were doing comic.
Overall, I have to say that I found the Benshi experience utterly superior to the “read it yourself” version, and I can’t help but wish that someone would put the effort into reviving the Japanese silents with the energetic, illustrative accompaniment of Benshi that I’ve seen people put into reviving American silents with their original scores. But these days, I guess we have to be grateful that people are trying just to save these movies before they disappear forever, Might I hope, however, that the next wave might be one of further authenticity? If so, I’m quite willing to offer myself up to be trained appropriately, because I’ve rarely had more fun at the movies. Thank you to the BFI for making this evening possible – it was great!
(This review is for a showing that took place on April 22, 2013. For another take on this evening, please see Ewan at the Cinema’s review.)